January 31, 2011

shades + matchstick = '86 radness

It seems almost irrelevant to synopsize Sylvester Stallone’s newest film—but would you believe it, Sly plays a renegade cop who resorts to his own unorthodox methods to clear the streets of scum? And would you believe his superiors are always wringing their namby-pamby hands over such trifles as First Amendment rights?

Stallone, as he repeatedly makes obvious through the dialogue and action, has had it up to here with this innocent-until-proven-guilty nonsense. Cobra is his Dirty Harry, and he’ll take care of business—in this case, a subhuman serial killer and maniacal followers—with an arsenal of guns and grenades.

The movie, written by Stallone and directed by his Rambo collaborator George P. Cosmatos, delivers exactly what you’d expect. It’s a vehicle for violence, and the bruising pace is maintained throughout its 90-minute running time.

Cobra is the nickname for this specialty cop who deals in extreme situations. This guy drives a vintage car as oversized as himself, wears blue mirrored sunglasses, and sucks on a matchstick. You can see it right away: attitude problem.

He’s drawn into the serial-killer case when he protects the only witness (Brigitte Nielsen, Stallone’s wife and Rocky IV co-star). After she’s attacked in a hospital, he and his partner (Reni Santoni) spirit her away to a small town in rural California, which is promptly descended upon by dozens of gun-toting motorcycle-riding freaks.

At least one action sequence is okay—the opening, in which Cobra defuses a psycho in a grocery store (Psycho: “I’ll blow this whole place up!” Cobra: “Go ahead, I don’t shop here.”) Of course there are a couple of gonzo car chases, plenty of rock music, and lots of flying glass.

Equally important to Stallone (it seems) is the opportunity for pithy political commentary. He throws his unread newspaper (full of bleeding-heart editorials, no doubt) in the hibachi. He declares the court-and-jury system hopelessly civilized. And a wall photo of Ronald Reagan hangs prominently in his office.

However, the president doesn’t rate quite as high in the film’s pop iconography as Pepsi, who probably paid big bucks to have their logo turn up just about everywhere, including a huge neon sign outside Stallone’s apartment.

Most of Stallone’s hijinks are laughable enough to shrug off. But his final response to a fellow cop’s conciliatory handshake, coupled with the relentlessness of the film’s vigilante message, make Cobra a little more unpleasant than his usual.

I said that Cobra contained nothing unexpected. I correct that. Although Stallone still likes strutting his physique—he sticks his chest out a lot—he does resist the urge to take his shirt off at any time during the film. Perhaps we may view this as a significant variation in Stallone’s storytelling formula. Then again….

First published in the Herald, May 1986

You couldn’t get away from those blue mirrored sunglasses on the poster for Cobra the summer this came out. The film seems nastier and stupider than some of the other breast-thumping action pictures of the period, unleavened by humor or Chuck Norris-level cheesiness. For a good parlor game, try guessing at the actual duties of George P. Cosmatos on his Stallone vehicles.

High Hopes

January 28, 2011

Phil Davis, Ruth Sheen, High Hopes

At the beginning of the new English film High Hopes, a young man, Wayne, climbs out of the London underground and stands around, looking like a goof. Lost, he will search for his sister, fail to find her, and then toddle back to his rural home, never to be heard from again.

Wayne’s search takes up the first 15 minutes of High Hopes, but he is simply a vehicle for entry into the story. The people who befriend him turn out to be the characters that we will spend the most time with, but Wayne’s curious presence is typical of the movie’s ability to accommodate tangents, yet seem like an utterly organic whole.

The subject matter of the film is simply life in London today, and the way some people cope. The people include a couple, Cyril and Shirley (Philip Davis, Ruth Sheen) whose former radicalism has settled into a kind of permanent crankiness; Cyril’s aged mother (Edna Doré),who is beginning to show the effects of senility; her crazed, repulsive upwardly-mobile neighbors (riotous caricatures by David Bamber and Lesley Manville); and Cyril’s awful sister (Heather Tobias), a woman with a laugh like some horrible dying animal, who gives her mother a home blood-pressure kit for her birthday.

These lives intersect with regularity but without any kind of obvious structure, and the events veer from kitchen-sink reality to satirical comedy. The scenes between Cyril and Shirley, two homely, intelligent people, have an intimacy that convinces you that the camera is somehow peeking into real lives, not movie lives. This is invisible acting.

It’s an unpredictable film, always alive. The writer-director is Mike Leigh, an Englishman who has worked extensively in British theater and television. Leigh visited the area recently for interviews, and he described his working method. He begins a project with a theme or a setting, then hires actors to develop the story and their characters with him.

Thus the actors have “total creative freedom in every way,” Leigh says. “We’re on a voyage and we don’t actually know where we’re going. I can always changes horses in midstream.” Leigh and his actors go through lengthy periods of research and rehearsal, although there is little actual improvisation once shooting begins.

Leigh says High Hopes was born out of his thoughts on “political disorientation,” the urge to procreate (Cyril and Shirley are weighing the political and social implications of having a child), and Leigh’s own experiences with a dying father and the difficult lot of elderly people in London whose neighborhoods are rapidly changing.

Critics who have seen Leigh’s theater and TV work suggest that High Hopes is more upbeat than his usual. “To say it’s an optimistic film is to simplify it,” he says. But, he insists, “I would be depressed if anyone thought it was entirely satire.” Then he seems to put his finger on his philosophy in general: “If you show life the way it is, you are implicitly lamenting it.” High Hopes is a graceful lament.

First published in the Herald, 1989

This is the only time I have interviewed Mike Leigh, and the memories are not fond. It was one of those things where I said something dumb at the start, or began with just exactly the wrong sort of question you’d want to lead with if you wanted to communicate to this filmmaker that you weren’t really just another media idiot being herded into the room to fulfill a certain number of column inches, no, you actually were kind of cool and seriously into this whole film thing. No, that certainly was not communicated, and I could see something in the back of Mike Leigh’s brain switch off as he sized me up, and he was finished with me at the beginning of the talk, and it was all sort of grouchy and automatic for the remaining time. (Plus, I was 30 years old and looked about 14.) Still, that last quote from him is pretty nice. Leigh’s Another Year opens in Seattle this week, and it does have a few affinities with High Hopes, including cast members Sheen, Manville, and Davis.

Death Wish 4

January 27, 2011

Death Wish 4 provides Charles Bronson with employment in his customary line of work: He loads himself down with ammunition and sets out to do justice in the world, without the intermediary of the judicial system. This time out, the target is drugs. Since, as one character puts it, “Everybody does drugs these days,” Bronson has quite a task.

As the film opens, it looks as though Bronson is preparing to ease into his golden years. He’s got a new girlfriend (Kay Lenz) and a flourishing business as an architect. Lenz has an adolescent daughter who is perky and lovable and full of life. This means that she is, of course, marked for death, since most people who get close to Bronson in these movies wind up getting wasted.

He takes revenge on the pusher who sold her some deadly drugs. Then Bronson is hired by a rich newspaper man (John P. Ryan) who seeks to destroy the two main suppliers of drugs in Los Angeles. Bronson opens up the ammo arsenal that he keeps behind his refrigerator and goes to work.

It’s formula action, although this sequel is slightly better than the last two Death Wish movies. J. Lee Thompson brings at least some professionalism to his direction, though the movie never blinds you with its speed. Bronson, who looks more than ever like a large, grizzled otter, goes through his usual paces. He begins the film with a dream about his favorite haunt, a dimly lit parking garage, and he remains all but asleep throughout the rest of the movie.

First published in the Herald, November 1987

A crap remake of Bronson’s Mechanic opens this week, so it seemed time to drag out another of that fine star’s desultory outings from the Eighties. And yes, if memory serves, this one was marginally superior to the previous sequels in the series; but J. Lee Thompson would stick with Charlie B. for two subsequent pictures, Messenger of Death and Kinjite—Forbidden Subjects, which were really grueling and ugly. And that was it for the directing career of the man who made The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear. I don’t need to tell you that Kay Lenz was a mainstay of Seventies and Eighties TV, and played the lead in Clint Eastwood’s Breezy, a nice movie that had an incredibly maddening and unavoidable four-wall ad campaign. (I wasn’t old enough to go to the movie when it came out, but logging twelve hours of television a day, the commercials would drive you insane.) It was the kind of thing to make you never forget Kay Lenz.

Harlem Nights

January 26, 2011

The opening credits are rather ominous, at least in retrospect: “Paramount Pictures Presents/In Association with Eddie Murphy Productions/A Film by Eddie Murphy/Eddie Murphy/Richard Pryor/Harlem Nights.” That’s a lot of Eddie Murphys. And there are two yet to go before the credit roll is over: “Executive Producer” and “Written and Directed by.”

Murphy, a conglomerate unto himself and a very talented fellow, appears to have overreached this time. Harlem Nights is obviously a cherished project, but the movie doesn’t seem to know what to do with itself. It looks like a film made by a man who wasn’t required to answer to anybody.

Murphy plays Quick, the adopted son of a classy Harlem nightclub owner named Sugar Ray (played by Murphy’s lifelong idol, Richard Pryor). Their business is flourishing in the late 1930s, until Manhattan’s crime lord (Michael Lerner) decides to take a bite. He sends his top henchman, a crooked cop (Danny Aiello), to threaten Sugar Ray or close him down.

All of this is the setup for Sugar Ray’s response, which is to unleash an elaborate retaliation along the lines of The Sting, while Quick romances the bad guy’s mistress (Jasmine Guy).

It is a bizarre movie. A scene will begin like something out of Beverly Hills Cop only to end up looking like Once Upon a Time in America. A lot of characters are killed in ways that are evidently supposed to be funny, but come off as peculiar.

An index of the film’s failure is the period design. The costumes are great, the music is beautifully chosen, the cars are vintage. But the behavior and language of the characters is absolutely rooted in the ’80s. There’s no effort to weed out anachronisms, or to conjure a sense of what Harlem must have felt like in the 1930s (despite a couple of authentic supporting performances by Redd Foxx and Della Reese). Everything is breezily superficial.

Two sequences come to mind as original. One is the prologue, in which Murphy’s character, as a child, first comes to Pryor and coolly shoots an adversary dead. The second is a boxing scene in which the black world champion is fighting a great white hope; as each boxer lands blows, the different halves of the crowd jump to their feet—exactly one half is white, the other black.

Among its other problems, Harlem Nights comes off as awfully mean-spirited toward women. This has been a criticism of Murphy before, but he seemed to be maturing pleasantly with his previous film, Coming to America, which was a charming love story. Harlem Nights is a step back in almost every way, and it displays no evidence that Murphy has any kind of touch as a director. Worst of all, he’s accomplished the unthinkable. He has made Eddie Murphy not funny.

First published in the Herald, November 18, 1989

A real dud. Pryor’s career, which had been a skyrocket earlier in the decade, was now winding down for a variety of sad reasons (he’d had his own self-directed flop a couple of years before this—Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling—which at least had some strange energy to it).

Coup de Torchon

January 25, 2011

Noiret and Huppert

The waves of heat that shimmer above the African plain in the opening sequence of Coup de Torchon are not just indicators of the visual texture of the film—dusty, unstable, with a goodly amount of strolling hand-held camera—they also serve as a prediction of the clarity of the film’s theme. Which is to say that nothing is very clear at all in Bertrand Tavernier’s latest movie; that’s just as it should be, since Tavernier is offering up provocative questions about some heavyweight ideas—Morality and Justice, for instance—and steadfastly refusing to lay down any answers.

Instead, Coup de Torchon glides in a dreamy ambiguity; if the issues that Tavernier engages are heavyweight—and Tavernier, l’auteur of The Judge and the Assassin and A Week’s Vacation, is rather refreshingly resolute about tackling ideas as well as characters—his manner is nimble. He describes Coup de Torchon as a “Metaphysical Comedy,” and that should take care of anyone who needs a snap summation of this unclassifiable film.

The head cop of the town of Bourkassa, French West Africa (it’s 1938), is not quite the jellyfish he appears to be. Even as he kowtows to the local pimps (in exchange for pocket money) and lazily lets law enforcement slide, Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) is starting to carry out little revenges. Nothing more than dumping a shaker of salt into his (supposed) brother-in-law’s coffee, but he is striking back. To the townspeople, he is simply the bumbling wishy-washy government flunky, and they would never suspect him of being capable of sawing a hole in the outdoor latrine as a practical joke, let alone of murder, but he will do both.

At some point, Cordier gets the idea—and we’re never sure just when, or even whether he really believes it—that he is Jesus Christ, or a reasonable facsimile, sent to this Earth to clean things up. So he starts “correcting” the situation by killing people, at which times he shows more fervor than he usually demonstrates (basically, Cordier would prefer to be sleeping or eating all the time).

“The termites keep eating the crosses,” says the town priest, planting a new wooden crucifix in the earth. “Good thing Christ is cast iron,” observes Cordier. Cordier is much less durable than that church’s icon, and it is the termites of the world—bigotry, cruelty, mendacity—that have eaten into him and presumably set off his bizarre behavior. “It’s a dirty job,” sighs Cordier, as the burden of being the son of God weighs down upon him. The weariness—it’s gone past frustration, that’s too active a world—of the battle to keep the insects off oneself is beautifully captured by Tavernier (and his co-writer, Jean Aurenche—they based their movie on Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280), nowhere more powerfully than in the final, haunting image.

Much of that power comes from Tavernier’s lead actor—the lead actor in almost all his films—Philippe Noiret, who shuffles, slouches and rolls through the comedic/horrific paces with the agility of a big sea lion in water. Stubble-bearded, pink-shirted, and round-bellied, Noiret gives one of those performances in which an actor seems to do nothing and does everything. (He’s aided by superb work by three special actresses: Stéphane Audrane, Isabelle Huppert, and Irène Skobline.) Noiret and Tavernier don’t let us forget that Cordier is both a personality for examination, and an all-too-recognizable portrait of somebody who lives inside all of us.

First published in The Informer, July 1983

I think this was just about the time I started reading Jim Thompson, and Pop. 1280 was probably the first Thompson book, which would explain why I didn’t say more about it. This film is perhaps Tavernier’s masterpiece, although I can’t be definitive; his movies of the last decade haven’t been shown much in the States. The 1980s were good to him, though. I met Tavernier once when he came to the Seattle International Film Festival, and he happily talked about seeing Fifties starlet Julia Adams in a movie that morning on TV, and his growing interest in the movies of William Wellman–exactly as you hoped he would talk. Detail about the movie I did not know until years later: the pink shirt Philippe Noiret wears in this film  was an homage to the dirty pink shirt Dean Martin wears in Rio Bravo. So there’s another reason to like it.

The Goonies

January 24, 2011

Redrum? No, Goonies

During the end credits of Steven Spielberg’s 1941, we see a series of faces from earlier scenes in the movie, all engaged in various forms of shouting. At that point, you realize that the film has had one overriding, annoying characteristic: It’s very loud.

I was watching Spielberg’s new production, The Goonies, and trying to remember what it reminded me of, when that credit sequence flashed into my mind. The Goonies was exactly the same sort of experience: grating and noisy.

Aside from grating and noisy, the first thing that should be said about The Goonies is that it isn’t all Steven Spielberg’s fault. He co-produced and is credited with the idea for the movie, but his marvelous directorial touch is definitely absent. Spielberg chose veteran director Richard Donner (Superman, Ladyhawke) to helm. (The handsome exteriors were shot in Astoria and Cannon Beach, Ore.)

Somehow this just isn’t Donner’s kind of movie. The story—about a group of kids who stumble into an old-fashioned buried-treasure caper—calls for charm, wit, and high energy. It’s certainly got the latter, as the film follows the thrill-a-minute rhythms of a bad night in a haunted house. But when someone screams in horror every 30 seconds or so, it gets numbing after a while.

Spielberg’s idea was not a bad one. At least since Treasure Island, kids have dreamed of being lifted from humdrum reality into some exotic adventure, preferably one involving one-eyed pirates and treasure and pieces of eight. The Goonies begins with the kids (members of the titular society) discovering a crusty old map in an attic.

The map leads them to an abandoned lighthouse and the maze of catacombs (and the series of boobytraps) that snake underneath. Adding to the frenzy, and hot on the kids’ trail, is a trio of bloodthirsty criminals and their imbecile brother (played, under much freaky makeup, by John Matuzak, former head-basher for the Oakland Raiders—whose symbol is a one-eyed pirate).

The kids are drawn sketchily, with a reliance on type: There’s a fat one, an Asian one, a loudmouthed one. The only time a sense of wonder or innocence enters their adventure is toward the end, when they get closer to the treasure they are pursuing.

I would guess the cause of the film’s lack of distinctiveness is the distribution of authority; Donner may have been the director, but Spielberg was the head honcho, and worked closely with screenwriter Chris Columbus (who wrote Gremlins). Thus The Goonies has no particular sensibility behind it. It feels more like a movie made by a committee that thinks it knows what the young audience is going to want to see this summer.

They may be right; the preview audience I saw the film with seemed enthusiastic. But to me, The Goonies is strangely uningratiating—and a sense of ingratiation is exactly what the film needs the most.

First published in the Herald, June 1985

Millions loved it, and it ended up the #6 top-grossing film of 1985. If you were a kid, it seems to have been an important film, then and now. Just excruciating. Maybe, come to think of it, it actually is a Richard Donner kind of picture.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too

January 21, 2011
Michelle Holmes, George Costigan, Siobhan Finneran

Rita, Sue and Bob Too is easily the year’s most off-the-wall movie, a weird and uncategorizable comedy that never quite goes where you expect it to. It’s slightly reminiscent of the current Wish You Were Here, being also a British film about the sexual awakening of girlhood, but it’s utterly in its own original style.

Rita (Siobhan Finneran) and Sue (Michelle Holmes) are two plain-speaking English lassies just about finished with their high school education. They live in a town in the North of England, where the beauty of the countryside contrasts oddly with the rundown, prefabricated look of their planned community.

They’re two regular gals, struggling unremarkably through life. After a baby-sitting job one night, they’re given a lift home by Bob (George Costigan), an unhappily married man. Bob drives the girls to a dark place and quizzes them about sex. They don’t know much about the subject, but they’re game to try.

There ensues a raucous, moonstruck ménage a trois, played for laughs and viewed by the girls as dumb fun. They carry on this triangle through the weeks ahead, but Bob’s wife (Lesley Sharp) is getting suspicious.

Then, a series of unexpected turns: Bob’s wife leaves him, Rita moves in with Bob, Sue move in with a Pakistani boy (Kulvinder Ghir). But the central situation remains this nutty triangle, and its unapologetic participants.

At any moment during this movie, you expect it to suddenly turn serious, force its characters to confront reality, punish them for their sins.

Never happens. The film goes gleefully on its unpredictable way, refusing to stop and moralize.

The director, Alan Clarke, has worked for years in British television. (His most famous previous achievement was a controversial BBC program called Scum.) Clarke uses lengthy camera takes, and constantly allows his characters to define their movements and inflections in an almost improvisational way. Sometimes, in its own salty, irreverent fashion, this is reminiscent of the directorial generosity of Jean Renoir.

Andrea Dunbar’s script displays a marvelous ear for working-class dialogue. And in the actors, Clarke has worked wonders. The three principals don’t look like actors; they look like the sorts of people you’d find trapped in small-town circumstances.

It’s hard to classify a film like this. But in its mad exuberance, I found it one of the most liberating movies of the year.

First published in the Herald, September 17, 1987

Unless you’re in Britain, Alan Clarke is not a familiar name, and his movies and TV projects were hard to find; maybe they still are. David Thomson champions him in the Biographical Dictionary of Film. Clarke died in 1990, the same year as Andrea Dunbar, whose screenplay began life as a play written when she was very young. She wrote three plays, all about the same dreary location, which she apparently never escaped (she was 29 when she died). There’s more about her life in this link; it isn’t pretty.